The journey has been a long one and I am one of perhaps three or four white people on the flight to Islamabad, it was delayed an hour because PIA missed the take-off slot. Mostly the passengers speak in Urdu and wear traditional Pakistani clothing, some wear Western attire and I am the only passenger in a tweed jacket and chinos. The only two entertaining parts of the flight are when I accidently eat an entire chilly during dinner and have to surreptitiously poke my mouth into a yoghurt for two minutes; and when a passenger’s overhead luggage starts leaking and showers him with water. Islamabad airport could do a lot better, it is ugly, tired and run-down. Urdu script is everywhere but I am able to read most of the signs and adverts which tend to be in English. There are many guards here, they are armed with AK-47s and pump action shotguns. I feel excited and relieved the flight is over, finally I am here! ; I am met at the Arrivals lounge by a man with a sign for “Mr Michel” and I guess correctly it is for me. We take a shuttle bus to the Rawal Lounge which seems to be the VIP section of Islamabad airport. I am asked to sit down in a leather armchair as my greeter takes my passport and, after a brief conversation with security, ushers me through without even looking at the photograph in the passport. I wait for my bags for two hours and begin to curse that I have not taken out travel insurance but they eventually arrive.

As I walk towards my car I am greeted by a small man with angular facial features and a wide smile which exposes gappy teeth. He introduces himself as Waheed Gilani and is to be my guide whilst I conduct my work here. Waheed speaks good English and we make small talk whilst Nadeem’s driver, Sabar, taxis us to the Shah family home in Bani Galla. Nadeem is the chairman of the AHS Foundation and will be here during my first week. Waheed, who wears western attire, strikes me as a very friendly man, he is in his mid-forties and tells me there will be plenty of work this next few months. It is 27C and I realise why I am the only passenger wearing a tweed jacket and tie. En route I see several buses and lorries which are decorated in an outrageous fashion. Around the wheel arches and bumpers are dozens of dangling silver medallions. They have multi coloured wind mills on the engine grill which whizz round, horns and tassels. They are painted elaborately in greens, reds, oranges, yellows and have poetry and pictures emblazoned on ever spare panel. Waheed explains these are commonplace, that almost every lorry, truck, bus and van is decorated in this traditional style. At this moment I feel I am a long way from home, but the outlook is positive.

After forty minutes drive we arrive at base camp in Islamabad. I follow Waheed to the dining room for breakfast with Nadeem who is in good spirit and I am thankful to see a familiar face. Another guest at the house greets us, his name is Kabir Sabar, he is a senior banker with RBS. He strikes me as a very impressive man and tells me that he is organising various visits and people for me to meet in Pakistan, I am thankful for his hospitality. He later tells me more of his extensive involvement in British politics and that he has stood for Parliament in England. I have run out of cigarettes at this point, Nadeem has gone into town, so I ask Waheed to show me the direction to the shops. He says he will walk with me.

We eventually walk out the drive of the house in Bani Galla and take a dusty track through some fields. Several skinny cows block the path but move when we approach and the sun beats down from above. The local village shops strike me as being quite run down. They are terraced concrete boxes, litter and dust borders the roadside and many locals, all dressed in traditional clothing, stare at me in my Western garb. I buy 60 cigarettes for the equivalent of ?2.20 and am very pleased. Later in the day Nadeem returns with a friend, Zulfiqar, who is in the steel trade and hydro electric plants. He is amiable and promises to see more of me during my stay; he will help whenever he can with the work I am doing. Its dinner time and Nadeem and I are driven to his friend’s house. We meet Dr Farooq Beg, his wife Huma and her father Murtaza. Farooq and Huma are successful documentary makers, have produced films and programmes the world over, including for the BBC, and has won awards at Cannes. Huma is also a famous presenter in Pakistan; in fact as we sit and wait for them in the drawing room we can hear her on the television. Her father is the former Minister for Defence Procurement, he studied at the Woolwich Arsenal and is a great admirer of the British Navy. I tell him about the Champion family history during the Indian Mutiny, the VC that was won, and although he finds it of interest I am reminded that in this part of the world it is known not as a mutiny but as the Great Sorrow. Farooq, Nadeem and I go out for dinner in a Western restaurant and afterwards go to a place where “young Pakistanis hang out”, it’s called the Hot Spot. This is an American Diner, the walls are adorned with Western flags and Americana, they serve burgers and ice creams and if it had not been frequented by people with beards and Pakistani clothing, it could have been a burger bar back home. 



O Lord,
The unripe fruit of our future, just waiting to blossom, has been crushed under what we thought were protecting walls and shielding roofs. I have seen the mashed roots of our future crop as I buried the innocent ones; tiny figures sculptured so beautifully, they were the masterpieces of Nature’s art. I threw dirt on those tiny graves, which were opened like the jaws of a man-eating monster with multiple-mouths. For I had seen Mother Earth nipping, chewing and swallowing the tender shoots of the tree of our life, now wrapped in colourful cloths of Eid festival or still in their school uniforms already dyed with the vibrant colour of their fresh blood. Randomly left behind were the torn books and school bags as a token to trace them and mourn their forced evacuation from their beautiful world.  
I have seen the charming, attractive faces of youths sleeping, with eyes half opened as if they were waiting for someone to say goodbye for good. The pinkish cheeks, still so full of life, covered in the light and dark shades of an unexpected and hasty demise. It seemed as though they were just pretending, for it was difficult for me to decide if they were alive or dead.
I heard their unspoken words yelling, “We were preparing to live in this world, but are selected to go to eternity and meet our Lord.” I saw their dreams peeping out of their half-opened eyes, saying, “See, there is such a small gap in between life and death; you have survived this time but soon you will join us. It may be tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or some other day. But surely one day your life will betray you also, and leave you helpless like us”. 
I witnessed the dying of fragile, old parents leaving their small children vulnerable to face the hardships of life. I felt that they did not want to go, leaving their dependents so lost and unaided. But they were unable to resist. 

Lord ! Shall I ever be able to forget the man who held a candy in his fingers from an end of its twisted wrapper ? Rolling it over and over, staring and murmuring, he cried, “This belongs to my child.” And when I looked at his face, expecting a new tale, I saw chapped lips, dry mouth and terrible vacant looks that were painful to my sight. His outfit was dirty, stained black with mud. When he noticed me, attentive towards him, again he whispered, “This belongs to my child.”  
I said, “I know, but where is your child ?”  

A murk of grief appeared on his face, tears burst out and in a blink rolled down his cheeks, leaving stains of white sadness on his dirty face. With vibrating lips and choked voice, he said, “There somewhere,” pointing with his trembling index finger far away into the sky. Then howling like a wild animal, he grabbed me in the longest, desperate embrace. I hadn’t met this man before, and I never met him again. But he left an unforgettable memory resting in my heart. 
Lord ! Shall I ever be able to forget the young boy to whom, six months after this incident, I gave the good news of his brilliant success in his examination? Expecting his smile and joy, I was astonished when instead he burst into tears.  
“What has happened to you boy?” I asked.  
He looked at his marks sheet and sobbed, “My father is not here to celebrate my success. He saw me off to my school before the earthquake. And I neither saw his last journey nor his grave. Where shall I take this marks sheet and to whom shall I show it to be proud for me ? Who will celebrate my success, forgetting the fresh scars of devastation and loss of dears ? Who, please who?”  
I had no answer.  
He reminded me of my own younger brother, who went through the same situation. I hugged this boy uncontrollably, as if he was indeed my own brother. I was numb, silent, attempting to control the storm growing stronger inside me.  

And the tears of the lady sharing the painful memory of her 20 year-old cousin who lay in suffering for half-an-hour, before he died.  
“He was trapped under the fallen rafter of his house, after running out when the house had collapsed. This beam had landed on the lower section of his body, trapping him under the debris and crushing half of his body. He kept calling for help. But there were no tools or people to rescue him instantly.  
Screaming for help, I put his head in my lap to protect his face from the hard ground. He kept begging me to save him, ‘ I am going to die, please help me. I don’t want to die.’ 
Ah! I was helpless myself, and had no power to help him with only my two hands and the heavy burden that covered him. Family members who had survived were desperately attempting to take away the burden from his body. He was suffering and drooping. I kept patting his face and pleading for him not to go, but he did not wait. He was giving up the fight for life. Gradually he stopped moving. He looked into my eyes helplessly for a last time and his eyes widened. Feebly, I watched him going. A few minutes later, he was released from the burden of the debris, but he had thrown back the burden of life long before that.”
Lord ! You are mighty and unique in your wisdom. Guide us to the right path of humanity and adoration. We human beings hatch hatred, for what ? What is the purpose of abhorrence ? There is nothing more important than life, yet life itself is so erratic. You are the common and only Creator, so whoever we are, why do we not give attention to you instead of focussing on colour, cast, ethnicity or religion ? Shall we always hate each other for such baseless motives ?  
Shall we keep cheating ourselves by neglecting our own demise, which cannot be avoided ? We act without caring about other fellow human beings. We set our goals for a successful and comfortable life that still discards us so easily.  

Alas ! Life itself is mortal and unpredictable. I saw it dispose of thousands of people, as if it had no relationship with them at all. It did not care for long companionships, the frailty of elders, the prime of handsome, young men or the innocence and delicacy of little children. Is there anything more treacherous than life?  
I saw dozens of children who were so terrified that they didn’t demand any food for four days. I remember a circle of them sitting around an ugly, dented skillet over an open fire, waiting for dusty rice to be boiled. I shall never forget the anxiety of those hungry children, who were waiting for cups to be emptied for their turn to get some salty rice water. Their fatigue and deep sleeps after gulping the rice water with just a few grains in it.  
Shall I ever be able to forget a two year-old baby boy searching for something to eat in the dead coal, after the fire was extinguished? I can still see his tiny, blackened hands, stretching from the filthy sleeves.  

And that young lady lying motionless with a broken back, hiding her baby, just a few months old, under her shawl. Hungry herself, but unable to move, she was breast-feeding her tiny baby. And the soft calls of her mother asking her kindly and helplessly, “Are you tired, my daughter ? Shall I come to change your side?”  
The eleven year-old girl with a fractured leg bone and open wounds. In the middle of the dark night, she was calling her dead mother, who lay sleeping under the rubble of her destroyed house, unable now to hear the cries of her lovely daughter.  
God ! I still hear screams of injured women and children coming from near and far, from all directions in that dark and cold October night, when there was no light other than a few mournful camp fires and the uncaring radiance of a million stars. 

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